Shalei, what is your personal story and what drew you to academic leadership?
When my daughters were born it took me a little while to decide the direction I wanted my career to take. I had a few jobs that were education related because I really enjoyed being able to guide students in a way that, in some instances I benefitted from, and in other instances, were an example of what NOT to do. At one job I met two women who introduced me to The PhD Project and I never looked back. It took me a little while to finish my degree, and the pathetic was neither straight nor smooth, but I have the PhD Project to thank for helping me cross the finish line.
After a few years at SUNY Old Westbury I was presented with an opportunity to work as the Assistant Vice President for Academic Affairs. The timing was ideal because my daughters just left for college and I felt I could stretch my wings a little more. Academic leadership gave me the opportunity to put management theory to practice. I got a more global view of the college and its position in the region, and was able to think strategically about our operations.
You were a wife and a mother when you started your PhD program. How did you balance this and what advice do you have for others who want to follow in your footsteps?
As a wife and mother I felt that they always had to be my overall priority, but not my only concern. I don't know that I ever managed to balance the two. There was always that feeling of neglecting something when you were attending to something else. It's the classic working parent challenge and I really just did what I had to do when it had to be done. Sometimes I failed, but I still kept going and managed to eventually graduate, find a job I enjoyed, and keep my family intact.
What did work was making sure that the lines of communication were kept open with my family. The girls were three when I started, but even at that age I kept them as informed as their age could handle. I would like to believe we are at a time in business where you can have open lines of communication with your employers as well to manage expectations.
You are Director of Graduate Programs at SUNY Old Westbury. What do graduate programs need to do better to help First Gen and diverse graduate students?
I know that graduate programs have a fiscal goal for the college, but I also believe that as a graduate director I am responsible for making sure that students make informed decisions that will elevate their access to opportunities without saddling them with unnecessary debt. This is especially true for first gen and diverse student populations. I believe students are more informed about graduate school in general, but more needs to be done to make sure that students take their time and make strategic decisions as opposed to rushing to take the most popular degree program, only to find it has no impact on their employability, or did not represent a real interest they wanted to pursue long term.
Programs also need to make sure that they foster a culture of safe inquiry amongst the faculty and staff so that first gen students and students from diverse populations are not isolated, trying to figure things out on their own. These students are more likely drop out, but are not absolved of any debt they incurred in the process. I keep mentioning debt because it has disproportionately affected these student groups and has delayed actions that contribute to access to generational wealth.
How can all grad students better help diverse and First Gen undergrads?
It has been my experience that there is not a lot of cross pollination between grad students and undergrads, except in the instances of grad students employed by the college. These students are often the first line of contact with someone who is engaged in an activity an undergraduate may want to pursue. They should be available, be honest, and be encouraging. Undergrads may be more comfortable approaching them, and so their response to any inquiries matters immensely.
What do you most want young people to know based on your path?
What my journey to the PhD and after has taught me is that it is never too late to start, but it is difficult to do alone. You need a group of people who have your back and understand what you are going through to get it done. This is especially true if you have a family. Some people help with logistics, some with moral support, some with financial support, some with emotional support. Whatever the case may be, it is worth it in the end because, if you really take advantage of your educational and social experience while you are pursuing your degree, you will be in a great position to pay it forward and impact the lives of students who reflect the road you once traveled.